frequently asked questions
Intro to solar gardens
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- What is a Solar Garden?
A solar garden is a solar electric array with multiple subscribers connected to the utility grid. The subscribers may purchase a portion of the power produced by the array and receive a credit on their electric bill. Utility customers within the solar garden’s service area, including residences, businesses, local governments, non-profits, and faith-based organizations, can all subscribe to the sun.
- What is Community Supported Energy?
A community supported solar array might be hosted on a school, library, house of worship, or community center. A group of small investors within the community pool their resources to build the solar array and sell power at a discount to the host. The investors typically receive a direct payment rather than an electric bill credit.
- Why is a solar garden so cool?
Unlike big power plants, a solar garden is a distributed generation project. Distributing power production provides benefits to communities beyond local, clean, and more affordable energy. It also creates jobs locally, avoids destroying delicate habitats, and bypasses the need for inefficient transmission lines, which lose power during transmission and can take many years to put in place. And it helps ensure that the benefits of renewable energy go to the people who need the power—that’s all of us.
- How big can a solar garden be?
That depends on state regulations. In Colorado, solar gardens can be anywhere from 10 kilowatts, which would fit on a large roof, to 2 megawatts, requiring up to 16 acres. An average single-family home would offset 100% of its electricity usage with about 2-5 kilowatts of solar power. Under the California bill SB 843, solar gardens could be as large as 20 megawatts (160 acres), which could power over 5,000 average homes.
- What is the Solar Panel Hosting Company?
Solar Panel Hosting Inc. (SPH) is a company based in Westminster, CO, that facilitates solar gardens. As a hosting service provider, SPH facilitates a smooth experience for both subscribers and hosts. Hosting services might include assistance with community organizing, training, financial modeling, working with vendors, subscriber management, and facilities and operations management.
- What is the Solar Gardens Institute, and how does it work with the local community?
The Solar Gardens Institute provides public education and policy support promoting solar gardens and community supported energy. SGI builds real grassroots support for projects by working with local non-profits to help locate the project and subscribers. Solar gardeners, who are part community organizers and part project managers, assist in developing the projects. SGI provides training and tools to empower solar gardeners.
- What are the steps to starting a solar garden?
A solar gardener organizes a solar garden, working on 3 tracks: Policy, community organizing, and project development. These usually happen concurrently.
- Promote policies that support solar gardens: Work with your local utility to develop a solar gardens program. Find a state legislator to champion a solar gardens bill at the state level. Work with your county planning commission to develop zoning rules for solar gardens. Support policy at the federal level such as the SUN Act.
- Organize communities: Hold/attend community meetings, recruit early adopters, partner with a local nonprofit. Neighborhood associations can help get people together and tend to know about specific churches, parking lots, etc., so they can help with asset mapping.
- Find host sites: Properties of 1-20 acres near substations or utility distribution lines and large roofs can serve as host sites. Your local utility can let you know the cost to interconnect.
- Find subscribers: In addition to regular subscribers, businesses, nonprofits, city governments, and other large power users who can use a significant amount of the power can be “anchor” subscribers. In Colorado, at least 5% of subscribers to a solar garden must be low income.
- Identify local solar companies that can bid for construction: Solar Panel Hosting carries out the bidding process.
Subscribing to a solar garden
- What’s a subscriber?
A subscriber is an electric customer who owns a portion of a solar garden. The subscriber receives a credit on their electric bill for the power the panels produce.
- What’s an anchor subscriber?
An anchor subscriber is a subscriber who takes a large percentage of the garden (40% in Colorado) and is willing to buy subscriptions from people who move as well as sell subscriptions to new people.
- What is a subscriber organization?
A subscriber organization is defined in the Colorado Community Solar Gardens Act as a company founded for the purpose of managing a solar garden and its subscriptions. A subscriber organization can be a limited liability corporation or a cooperative. A subscriber organization must be structured carefully due to the requirements of securities law, the tax code, and financial institutions.
- How do I subscribe?
Fill out our subscriber interest form at solargardens.org/register or drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. Interested subscribers will not be required to make a financial commitment until program details are released and pricing is finalized. No subscriber will be charged until the system is built.
- How much solar can I buy?
The minimum subscription size varies – in Colorado’s XCEL Energy service area it is one kilowatt (about 4-5 panels). In other areas the minimum subscription can be as low as $10. The maximum subscription size is enough panels to provide all the average annual electricity consumption at the subscriber’s premises. We can work with you to determine the appropriate system size for your usage and your pocketbook.
- How much will I save?
The incentives for solar programs vary from area to area, as does the amount of sunshine available. Exact prices will be available when your utility’s program rules are complete and construction bids are received.
- With our Solar Savings Now Plan in CO: Subscribers will save up to 5-10% on their electric bill with a small down payment. This may require credit approval.
- With our Community Power Plan in CO: A kilowatt (kW) of solar power generation will cost approximately $2,000 – $2,500, due when the system is commissioned. In Colorado, subscribers will receive a monthly bill credit of $150-180 per year for each kilowatt purchased, which will change with electricity rates (which historically have gone up).
- What if I move?
If you move within the same area (in some states, the same county, and in others within a certain number of miles), you can transfer your subscription to a new meter. You can sell your subscription at any time you choose, if you move out of the area. If you sell your home, your subscription can be sold separately or with your home, depending on your preference.
- How long does a subscription last?
Subscriptions usually run for 20 years and can be sold before that term ends if the subscriber moves.
- How close do I need to be to a host to subscribe?
That depends on local laws. In Colorado, a solar garden must be in the same county as the subscribers, with some exceptions. Subscribers must be in the same utility service area as the solar garden.
Hosting a solar garden
- What’s a host?
A solar garden host provides a location to install a solar array to be connected to the utility grid. For example, a school or other public building might host the panels, or they might be hosted on a privately owned building or private land.
- Who pays for the array to be built?
There are two main ways of financing a solar array – crowd funding (the Community Power Plan) and a power purchase agreement (Solar Savings Now). With crowd funding, small investors in the community each pay for their subscription or invest in panels for mid and lower income folks to purchase over time. A larger array using a power purchase agreement from a third party financier provides a way for subscribers to save money immediately without an up-front payment.
- What qualifies a site to be a solar garden host?
A solar garden host can be a building (school, warehouse, public building, etc.), a parking lot, a brownfield site (land previously used for industrial or commercial purposes), and so on. Retired farmland or the corners of irrigation circles can make good host sites. The size of a solar garden depends on regulations in each state. A host site can be up to 20 acres.
- What is a hosting service provider?
A hosting service provider such as Solar Panel Hosting (SPH) trains solar gardeners to find hosts and subscribers, arranges financing and finds and manages subscribers. Solar Panel Hosting will work with local partners to develop the project. A hosting service provider’s role includes financing of project construction, subscription management, and ownership and payment models. SPH is developing over a dozen projects in Colorado and California — see http://www.solarpanelhosting.com/.
- Who installs and maintains the solar systems?
The hosting service provider works with local installers to install the solar systems. SPH charges a small monthly maintenance fee to cover both predictable and unpredictable maintenance costs, including inverter replacement and snow removal.
- What about warranty and insurance?
Panels typically have a warranty of 25 years and generally are expected to last much longer. A typical warranty will guarantee that in year 25, the panels produce 85% of the power they produced when new. Comprehensive insurance is included in the price to cover events such as theft, hail damage, or low production by the solar panels. The insurance is carried by a special-purpose entity, sometimes the same as the subscriber organization.
- What’s an O&M fund, and how does it work?
An Operations and Maintenance fund is set aside out of funds used initially to build the project and potentially also out of revenue produced by the solar array. This fund helps maintain the array, as well as cover any uninsured expenses, in case there’s something not covered by the insurance policy. If not needed, this fund can be used eventually to purchase the array for the subscriber organization.
- What kind of panels are used for a solar garden? Are they American-made?
Any kind of panels can be used in a solar garden, including American-made and some foreign-made. Most commonly, silicon electric solar panels are used, though other technologies are a possibility. Most jobs in solar are in the area of installation rather than in manufacturing, and the Solar Gardens Institute supports using local labor to support the local economy.
- What options do both subscribers and hosts have at the end of a lease?
A variety of models exist with terms of different lengths. The Solar Panel Hosting Company offers a plan that lets the host and subscribers decide whether to renew the lease in year 20 with the existing system in place, renew and upgrade to new technology, or decommission the system and return the land or structure to its original condition.
- Who makes decisions for a solar garden?
The group of subscribers making up the subscriber organization. The hosting service’s contract determines the conditions under which decisions are made. For example, a host might have veto power over certain decisions. The subscriber organization may choose to enter a long-term financial arrangement that will hold it to certain requirements in managing the array and subscriptions.
- What’s the rate of return on a community solar investment?
The sun shines everywhere–over time, solar panels will pay for themselves wherever you put them. The rate of return for a community solar facility is determined by the costs of electricity, solar panels, maintenance, and administration — plus the amount of sunshine available. State and utility incentives play a big part in determining the overall payback time, which can range from 6 – 20 years, with 8 – 14 being the most common. Tax concerns play a role, with third-party investors claiming the federal 30% tax credit when institutions like churches and schools cannot. The Solar Gardens Institute can assist in building financial models for community solar in your area. To learn more, contact email@example.com.
- What’s a kilowatt (kW), and what’s a kilowatt hour (kWh)?
A kilowatt is equal to 1000 watts and is a measurement of power. A small electric heater with one heating element can use 1 kilowatt, as can a microwave oven. There’s a difference between kilowatts and kilowatt-hours. A kilowatt-hour is the amount of energy equivalent to the power of 1 kilowatt running for 1 hour. If you leave a 100-watt light bulb on for 10 hours, you’ve used 1 kilowatt-hour. The average annual electricity consumption of a U.S. household is over 10,000 kilowatt-hours.
- Which states allow solar gardens?
Solar gardens laws have been established in Colorado, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Washington, and are pending in California, the District of Columbia, and Maryland.
- What is the SUN Act?
Senator Mark Udall, D-Colorado, has introduced the Solar Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) Act. This bill will allow individuals to claim the 30% federal tax credit for purchasing solar panels, even if the panels are hosted on a different property.